You may have met Chef Thibodaux before at his popular cooking classes held at Rouses locations across the South. The classes were an outgrowth of a culinary and language school Thibodaux founded called Friends of Italy. “I started these in-home, private cooking parties where I would turn people’s homes into my Italian restaurant and classroom, with wine and fun and laughter.” The classes quickly grew in fame, and 13 years ago, Donald Rouse thought they would be a great addition to his family’s stores. Their shelves were loaded with groceries from across the country and around the world, and the idea was to teach customers what they could do with them.
“When Rouses brings something from another country to sell, it is the finest item from that country,” says Thibodaux. “They know, more than ever, that their customers are world travelers and bring a great knowledge of global products. So the Rouse family personally goes to other countries and handpicks only products that meet a high flavor and quality criteria.”
For his first class, Thibodaux introduced a first cold pressed olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and taught students how to make an alfredo sauce and a scampi. He taught the class in the Rouses deli area with a portable stove — and it was a hit. “I’ve averaged about 12 classes a month for the last 13 years for Rouses,” he says. Each class has a theme, such as sauces or entrées or pasta, and each with a name like “Pastabilities!” or “Entréepreneur.” Regular attendees over time develop a well-rounded culinary education and learn to be adventurous in their shopping — to reach for items on the shelf they might ordinarily feel too intimidated to try.
Thibodaux, who was born in Franklin, Louisiana, first encountered authentic Italian cuisine when he was a young man in the U.S. Air Force. During the late 1970s and early ’80s, he was an F-15 mechanic stationed in Germany, and his unit did regular joint exercises with NATO forces. The training was conducted from the island of Sardinia. “When the aircraft had problems, they would fly mechanics to the island,” he says. “The problem was, you had to stay there for a month before a passenger plane would come get you. Brother, I was a 19-year-old Cajun boy with a pocket full of money, stuck on an Italian island in the sun, eating their amazing food.”
He began to write down recipes, both local and his own, to the latter adding a Cajun influence — things like pastalaya. He eventually moved to Italy, where he remained for over a decade. His recipes became journals, and those journals became books. He says it started as a passion, then became an obsession and, finally, a profession. When he returned to the United States, fluent in Italian and the ways of Italian cooking, he opened his culinary school. And the rest is history.
Today he teaches classes on a rotating basis at Rouses Markets in Houma, Thibodaux, Mandeville, Slidell, Hammond — Louisiana cities, all — as well as classes in Ocean Springs, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama. And they can be crowded — but are nothing like what happened when Rouses opened its stores on Alabama’s Gulf Coast.
Helping home cooks is what Thibodaux lives for. “I’m so grateful to Rouses for seeing the potential in me to help them,” he says. “I eat, breathe and sleep my performances. It takes a lot of preparation to teach large audiences, and I would never want to do anything else. This is my life. This is what I do, this is what makes me tick. Brother, to learn the different flavors of the world and to have the right ingredients, our customers don’t need a passport. All they need is a shopping cart.”